Back in March I completed a five day course entitled ‘The Teaching and Learning of Handwriting’. Who best to go to for a course on teaching handwriting than the National Handwriting Association? The course was absolutely brilliant. As with any good training I returned home inspired, full of ideas and with a lot of new knowledge. In this blog I’d like to share the key ideas that I came away with and attempt to explain a little more about some of them.
TOP TEN TIPS
Leadership of Handwriting:
1. Consistency of handwriting teaching from the EYFS to Year 6 is paramount.
2. Value handwriting – change hearts and minds. Handwriting is here to stay.
3. Adapt the EYFS curriculum to include more detailed expectations.
4. Intervention, from suitably qualified practitioners, can change handwriting forever.
Teaching and Learning of Handwriting:
5. Handwriting is a motor skill – it requires movement and stability from the whole body (gross motor) as well as flexibility and strength in the wrist, hand, fingers and thumb (fine motor).
6. There is a proven link between the quality of composition and of spelling to the fluency of handwriting.
7. Legibility and comfort should be the first aims of handwriting. Not neatness.
8. Handwriting practice never stops. Once their handwriting is fluent children should be taught to write at speed.
9. Observe, observe, observe. Observe children when they are learning to handwrite – it is the only way that you will help them to improve.
10. Two myths busted: 1. Handwriting books with four lines are not always helpful; 2. Continuous-cursive (all words fully joined up) can be damaging to handwriting.
Quality teaching of handwriting, of course needs quality leadership. Someone with a passion for it who will really drive changes forward. Hopefully, my top tips will support with this. Good sense and a little bit of knowledge will be helpful too! If you would like any of the resources referenced below please message me via the ‘contact us’ tab.
CONSISTENCY OF HANDWRITING TEACHING FROM THE EYFS TO YEAR 6
This is an obvious one, I know. To me, there are four ways that you can ensure that there is a consistent approach:
I. Policy – what is your school’s policy on teaching handwriting? A good policy should state why you teach handwriting, what you teach and when you teach. It should be shared and understood by everyone. If it is a proper policy it should be adhered to by everyone too. Upon my return from the five day course I wrote a model policy, please do contact me if you would like a copy.
II. Scheme – make sure that everyone is following the same scheme. Your school should have a house-style and your teachers deserve to have a clear pathway for teaching. They should not be required to ‘make it up’. In my opinion, Penpals for Handwriting (Cambridge University Press) and Nelson are the best ones out there. You will not need to buy them lock, stock and barrel. Teachers need a teacher’s book and a DVD with some visuals for IWBs. Everyone needs a prompt poster that clearly shows the font so that they can refer to it when teaching and when modelling writing. Again, don’t use a teachers’ website and print off a grotty A4 ‘poster’, invest in some high quality posters and put them in every teaching space.
III. Professional Development Meeting – everyone who will be expected to teach or support children with handwriting should have some training, or at the least a professional discussion about how to teach handwriting. Your policy will state the language that is used for teaching handwriting (which should reflect what the scheme says) for e.g. curly caterpillar letters, but does everyone know and understand this? The National Handwriting Association INSET committee are the best people to go to for this if you want training. There are consultants out there who specialise in handwriting but be careful that you aren’t sold on their whole package – you shouldn’t need to spend a fortune and you shouldn’t need a lot of training. Teaching handwriting is not rocket science but some basics are important to have. (See below for details of courses running in October 2016)
IV. Monitor – the only way to guarantee a consistent approach to anything in school is to go and have a look at what is happening. Don’t do a quick whizz round two weeks after introducing the policy and scheme and leave it at that. Be a dog with a bone. Set up a monitoring calendar for the year, pair people up, do drop-ins, do book looks, do pupil-voice (the children are always honest about how much handwriting practice they do!), audit staff for confidence levels, offer support to those who need it, and keep revisiting handwriting until you see the results at the end of the year.
“Handwriting is a dying art”
“Future adults won’t need to handwrite”
“My handwriting’s awful and I did OK”
“Teaching handwriting is so old fashioned. There are so many other, more important, things”
My daughter’s Head of Learning (she’s in Secondary school) said “the day our students sit exams in front of the computer is the day we stop asking them to handwrite their work”. Handwritten exams are still a requirement (unless a student has special dispensation); GCSEs, A’ Levels and University exams are all currently handwritten. For national exams, scripts are scanned by a computer and therefore need to be more legible than ever before. In a study carried out in 2011 by Graham et al it was found that 87% of GCSE gradings were affected by poor legibility of scripts.
As Primary teachers, we need to get over how we feel about handwriting and the future of handwriting. Our children rely on us to teach them how to handwrite so that it is legible and comfortable (more about that later) and so that they can eventually write at speed. They need it to survive Secondary school. They need it if they want to take academic qualifications at sixteen, eighteen, and beyond.
And, it’s statutory – whether we like it or not we have to teach handwriting.
ADAPT THE EYFS CURRICULUM TO INCLUDE MORE DETAILED EXPECTATIONS
In a nutshell, the EYFS framework does not include any detail around letter formation. Although the moving and handling section states that the child should be able to ‘use a pencil and hold it effectively to form recognisable letters, most which are correctly formed’ there is no guidance as to what constitutes correct letter formation. Many Year 1 teachers complain that although children come to them from YR being able to write their names and form recognisable letters, most have not been taught the correct letter formation. They have to unlearn poor habits which is very difficult for anyone let alone a five year old.
My recommendation is that you look at the Year 1 expectations (Primary National Curriculum 2014) for handwriting and transfer some of them to practice in Reception. (My model policy includes this.)
INTERVENTION CAN CHANGE HANDWRITING FOREVER
You can change a child’s handwriting. Early identification and intervention is absolutely vital (see ‘observation’ below). If the writing is spidery, illegible, wobbly, etc the child will need some sort of intervention. It can be a number of issues such as gross or fine motor skills or visual perception, or it could be as simple as the paper position or the child’s writing implement. If you suspect that it is something beyond your knowledge or skills your first port of call should be an Occupational Therapist. Trust me on this! If you don’t, then try googling ‘Handwriting issues and OTs…
NB If the child has a ‘funny’ grip there’s no need to change it unless s/he is uncomfortable or unable to write fluently.
LEGIBILITY AND COMFORT SHOULD BE THE FIRST AIMS OF HANDWRITING
Remember that the purpose of handwriting is to communicate meaning. Legibility must be the primary aim and therefore the first way that we, as teachers, measure success. Children should find handwriting comfortable too. Once their writing is legible and comfortable we are ready to support them to become fluent writers.
We should also support them to make their writing presentable – and this is where some teachers (and children) come unstuck. In their drive to write neatly strange things happen: they press very hard; they don’t press hard enough; they write very, very small; they write very slowly. In some of these cases neatness reduces legibility.
Also, ‘neatness’ is very objective. What I think is neat, you may not and vice-versa. How do we define neat? What if Mrs Blogs thinks my writing is neat and tells me how neat it is all year and then I go into Mr Blogs’ class and he thinks my writing is a bit scruffy? So, it’s all made easier if we concentrate on legibility and comfort in the first instance, and then support children to make their writing as presentable as possible.
HANDWRITING PRACTICE NEVER STOPS
I have already outlined how vital it is that children are prepared for academic life beyond the Primary school by learning to write fluently and at speed. I have also stated that handwriting is a motor skill – by definition it involves muscles that need daily exercise. Not only do children need to be able to write at speed for exams, note taking and copying text from IWBs, but they also need writing stamina. Without regular practice they will not leave Primary school ready for the handwriting challenges that Secondary school holds.
OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE
The only way that you can truly assess a child’s letter formation and fluency is by watching them write. An anecdote should illustrate my point: my daughter left Reception as a competent writer. She could write her name and many of the expected words. Her writing was legible and presentable(!) When she was in Y1 I happened to be looking over her shoulder when she was signing a birthday card and noticed that her letter formation was bizarre. I would never have known unless I’d watched her write.
Simply put, the best way to teach handwriting is in small groups or one-to-one. I know that in a typical busy classroom with a typical busy timetable this is impossible but if you can make it happen you will see a big difference. Try to target a group per practice session at the very least. And if you’re concerned about a child’s handwriting, observe!
HANDWRITING BOOKS WITH FOUR LINES ARE NOT ALWAYS HELPFUL
For a few reasons some children really struggle with four lines. Instead, having a base line and an x height line only can be more useful. Or zoned paper with a base line is even better. The simplest way to explain why zones are better than lines is to say that if we teach children to zone, when we take away the zones they can still hold them in their heads. If we teach them to rely on lines (other than the base line), they may struggle when we take the lines away. Please do contact me if you would like to see the different paper types (beware zoned paper on certain glittery educational resource sites!).
CONTINUOUS-CURSIVE CAN BE DAMAGING TO HANDWRITING
There are two fabulous articles on the National Handwriting Association website which explain, really clearly, the arguments against teaching continuous cursive in Reception. Please do read them here.
Click the link to see the National Handwriting Association website